Shanghai unveils measures to boost basic research

Li Qian Yang Meiping
Shanghai rolls out a guideline to boost support for – and increase spending on – basic research with the aim of turning the city into a more influential global innovation hub.
Li Qian Yang Meiping

Shanghai on Tuesday rolled out a guideline, comprising 20 measures, as intensified support for basic research with the aim of turning the city into a more influential global innovation hub.

According to the guideline, by 2025, the city's spending on basic research will account for 12 percent of its total research and development expenditure.

In fact, government funding on basic research has been increasing steadily. From 2018 to 2020, the proportion has climbed from 7.8 percent to 10 percent, according to figures from the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission.

Global scientific and technological innovation has entered an unprecedented period of intensive activity. Basic research breeds core technological breakthroughs, according to Chen Mingbo, deputy secretary general of the Shanghai municipal government.

Comparing innovation without original breakthrough as tree without roots, he said Shanghai is expected to build a solid basic research system, demonstrate its ability to lead original breakthroughs, strengthen its role as an innovation engine and accelerate progress to become an innovation hub with global influence.

The measures include expanding the talent pool, strengthening domestic and international cooperation and optimizing the research environment. A major highlight is a pioneering pilot program to set up special zones for basic research.

Under the program, universities and research institutes with significant advantages in basic research will receive long-term stable funding to support research, and multiple funding channels, built in cooperation with governments, companies and social groups, will be established.

As one of the candidates, the Shanghai Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences plans to select and sponsor 10 groundbreaking research programs each year with 20 million yuan (US$3.13 million) in financial support from the city government. The programs will focus on key areas such as biomedicine, integrated circuits and aerospace.

According to the plan, the selected programs will be financially supported for at least five years and their work will be assessed based on their efforts rather than just the results.

"Groundbreaking research entails high risk of failure," Zhao Xiaolong, chief of the technology development division of the Shanghai Branch of CAS, said. "So, we will tolerate as long as they try their best, even if they fail to achieve targeted results."

The academy will also employ assistants to help scientists with the management of their programs.

The move seems to have instilled more confidence in scientists for their future work.

"I'm glad with the special-zone project as it guarantees me stable sponsorship for a long period so that I can put 100 percent energy on my research," said Xin Xiufang, a researcher at the CAS Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences.

She had said previously that she spent too much time preparing applications for sponsorships, which usually lasted for shorter periods.

Zhou Bin, a researcher at the CAS Center for Excellence in Molecular Cell Sciences, said he has proposed a research program on the microenvironment of stem cells, in which he would develop a new cell-tracing method for investigation.

"For me, this research is a brave and challenging step as there's not much existing data to support my idea. But if I can succeed, the findings will be invaluable," he claimed.

"I have never applied for sponsorship for this program before because it was more likely to be turned down due to the high risk of failure. But now such innovative ideas are being embraced and supported, thanks to this program. It's good news for me."

Zuo Zhiwei, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, CAS, also said that when he was presenting his program, the expert panel which selects programs for the special-zone project showed an encouraging attitude.

"In other assessment modes, you could be challenged when presenting programs with uncertainties," he noted. "But this time, they gave me a lot of suggestions to carry out my research."

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